The late musician and composer Frank Zappa got it right when he said, “So many books, so little time.” More than ever, many avid readers have turned the solitary act of reading into an opportunity for socialization by joining book clubs. The New York Times estimated that five million people in the United States have done so, and each book club operates a little differently.
Some are open to everyone; others have closed memberships. Some appoint discussion leaders and some do not. The clubs meet for brunch (champagne optional), lunch, tea, dinner or in the evening. They meet in libraries, restaurants, bookstores, private homes and community centers. Most clubs meet monthly. Some “meet” online in groups formed by celebrities such as Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey. And of course, PBS’s Great American Read just concluded its national book club and conversation about America’s most beloved novel with the announcement of Harper Lee’s Kill a mockingbird as the country’s favorite title.
Some book clubs stick to prescribed genres, including current affairs, women’s literature, the natural world, mysteries, Native American literature, biographies, books on social justice themes, Jewish authors, romance novels, science fiction, history or novels that have won the Pulitzer Prize. . Others mix it from month to month, following the recommendations of the members.
Wanting to talk about what we read is not a new concept. In 1727 Benjamin Franklin organized a literary society in Philadelphia called Junto. Some 30 years later, Hannah Adams, a writer, was part of a book club in Medfield, Mass. And in 1840, in Boston, Margaret Fuller founded the first bookstore-sponsored book club.
A book club for “Weird and Wonderful” fans
Following this tradition, City Lit Books in Chicago sponsors eight book clubs, with staff members serving as hosts. Owner Teresa Kirschbraun opened the store six years ago. “We have a good relationship with the people in the neighborhood,” said assistant manager Matt Faries, “and they form the base of the clubs.”
City Lit book clubs are Found in Translation (fresh English translations of notable novels); Wilde Readers (LGBTQ, classic and contemporary literature); In brief (short stories or essays); Weird and Wonderful (science fiction, fantasy, magical realism); graphic content (graphic novels); Tell Me How It Ends (Nonfiction Current Affairs and Social Justice); Instant Classics (recent fiction) and Women Write Books.
“The Weird and Wonderful club is the most popular,” Faries said. “There are 20 to 25 members, a full range of ages. It’s just a great mix of people.
SubText Books in Saint Paul, Minnesota sponsors five book clubs and also serves as a meeting place for several Marcel Proust aficionados who meet for an hour each Sunday morning to read aloud from Remembrance of things past.
John Minczeski, poet and one of the band’s founders, who has met for several years, says Remembrance Volume 6 is nearing completion and plans to reach the conclusion of the final volume, Volume 7, “within a few years .”
Minczeski said this group had developed a fondness for Proust’s “scalpel-like dissection of people’s characters” and readily accepted a key feature of the book, which is 4,215 pages long. “If you go looking for a conspiracy,” Minczeski said, “you’ll be frustrated.”
Birdwatchers (and friends) flock to the nature book club
For 20 years, natural history enthusiasts have gathered in Saint-Louis to discuss scientific books. “One day in 1998, three bird watchers were out walking when one of them asked if the others had read Annie Dillard’s book. Pilgrim at Tinker Creekand that’s how the Nature Book Group started,” said Lisa Nansteel, one of the original members.
The nature book club, which has a dozen women and men, reads a variety of titles and at meetings they also enjoy “creative snacks”, which include a working volcano cake with lava and smoke, edible icebergs sprinkled with edible penguins, planet-shaped cookies and a “skeleton vegetable platter,” Nansteel said.
Another group, “The Book Guys”, based in Columbia, Mo., attracts up to 14 men each month. “There are retired professors and doctors in the band, and a mix of people from other fields,” said Terry Ganey, a member since 2007. “The band loves books about science, the environment, history and politics.As the discussion begins on book selection, it sometimes evolves into wine-fueled conversations about politics or current affairs.
Named book buyers circulate books among members
Readers at a San Francisco club have to think about a given book for six months, because the neighborhood women’s group only meets twice a year. That’s not the only unusual thing about the club, which was founded 85 years ago.
“Twice a year two members read reviews and then buy a copy of 17 different books – a mix of biographies, non-fiction and fiction,” said Dottie McHugh, a member for 20 years. “In September and March, everyone gets a new book and a ‘rolling list’, so we all know who gets the next book and when.”
At meetings, members discuss over tea what they liked or disliked about what they read. “We spend about five minutes on each title, and then we auction the books off so we have money to buy the next 17,” McHugh said. “It’s a way to sample all kinds of books for little money. We are engaged readers.
The Wise Women, a club in metropolitan St. Louis, also attracts engaged readers. The group is a spin-off of another group, created by women who rebelled.
“The original club met at the University of Washington, where an English professor sat on a stage leading a book discussion for 40 or 50 people,” said Helen Schrader, who joined in the late 1970s. “Some members decided it wasn’t fun, and they left to form a less structured group.”
Today, the group meets once a month at the members’ home, where they talk for an hour or more about the current book while enjoying wine, snacks, and dessert. “There’s such camaraderie between these smart women — although, of course, not everyone likes every book,” Schrader said. “In fact, books that some members don’t like often generate the most interesting discussions.”
“I miss book club something fierce”
Schrader added that she left the group because she was no longer comfortable driving at night. She said, “I miss book club something fierce.”
If you think you’re missing something wonderful, look for book clubs at your local library, university, or bookstore, or search online for a local Meetup book group. If you are empty, consider creating a group that meets the needs of members.